November 20, 2014
It's Beaujolais Time
Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé
While the fourth Thursday of November is traditionally recognized in the United States as Thanksgiving Day, one week before is known in the wine industry as Beaujolais Day! For me, the two are related, as my aunt is always sure to pick up a case of the newly released vintage just in time for Thanksgiving. Until now, though, I never understood what was so special about this wine.
Beaujolais vs. Nouveau
Beaujolais is a small, sub-region in the very south of Burgundy. Known exclusively for one type of wine, made from the Gamay grape, that is released in large part on the third Thursday of November, it is one of the more modest French wine-making regions. About one third of all Beaujolais is released and consumed very shortly after harvest, resulting in what we know as Beaujolais Nouveau. For Nouveau, they use a slightly different wine-making process, called carbonic maceration. In traditional wine-making, grapes are crushed to release the juice, which, along with the skins, are fermented with yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol. Carbonic maceration, on the other hand, ferments most of the juice while it's still inside the grapes, resulting in a fruity and low-tannanic wine, ready to be consumed almost immediately.
There are 10 "crus" in Beaujolais, so there is more to it than the Nouveau for which it has become famous. There are also two other appellations, Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais. The quality is objectively much higher, but the price point is much lower than you would usually find in Burgundy. A great deal!
What happens in November?
From what I can gather, this is one of the only regions in the world where it is not only acceptable to drink a year's vintage right away, but celebrated. Every year, people around the world celebrate the newest release with parties, from Paris to London to D.C. to San Francisco, everyone celebrates Beaujolais Day with lots of, you guessed it, Beaujolais Nouveau. There are at least 120 public celebrations of the new release in Beaujolais and the surrounding area alone. A great excuse for a party, and an opportunity to sample the first wine of the year!
Why is this an event that is even recognized, let alone celebrated globally? Well, there are a few reasons. One is tradition. The process behind making Nouveau began about a century ago, as a cheap and easy way to make some wine to celebrate the end of harvest, and allow locals to enjoy the fruits of their labor (literally). We largely have Georges Duboeuf to thank for the current day Beaujolais Day celebrations - it was his idea to market Nouveau as a seasonal hot commodity back in the mid 20th century. That way, these vintners could sell cheap and new wine at a reasonable profit, and would create a quick influx of cash just after harvest.
The idea of a "race" soon followed. If all Beaujolais Nouveau was released at 12:01 am on a given date, who could get their product to the restaurants of Paris the fastest? The winner would be featured on wine lists across the country. That race ramped up in the 1970's, and has continued to spread through present day.
It's a brilliant marketing technique - this is a wine with a timer on it (most people say it should be consumed before May following its release), and is an opportunity for wine lovers and enthusiasts to sample the very first production of that year's vintage!
Fun Facts for Thanksgiving Conversation
-All Beaujolais Nouveau is released at exactly 12:01 am on the third Thursday of November regardless of that year's harvest, meaning if it was a late harvest, there will be less time for fermentation.
- There are several varieties of grapes grown in the region of Beaujolais, but only Gamay is permitted in Nouveau.
- Due to its light body and fruity flavor, Beajuolais nouveau is best drunk slightly chilled or below room temperature, at about 55 degrees Farenheit.
- All grapes in Beaujolais must be picked by hand - the only region other than Champagne with that requirement.
Out with last year's vintage... and in with the new!
So, cheers...it's Beaujolais time!